Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Dinosaur Art: The Agony and The Ecstacy

I have some fairly mixed feelings about Dinosaur Art.

I've been carrying it around for a few days, browsing it in coffee shops, making random notes, and generally just drinking in the beautiful art and layout. There's no question that the book looks and feels spectacular. The art is crisp, the colors lush, the text margins pleasingly aligned. It's also worth noting that a lot of the selections for the various contributors are fantastic choices and do a great deal to show them off in their best light, and even those that miss the mark do so in an interesting way. If what follows seems to get a little bit nit-picky, it's because I don't really have any complaints about the book as a product--it's a beautiful package and its well worth your money.

Right up front, I think that Raúl Martín, John Conway, Douglas Henderson, John Sibbick and Todd Marshall all come off splendidly. Martin's deep canvas digital paintings are far and away the most successful of their kind, evoking photo-realism without ever straying uncomfortably close to it. Conway's stylistic playfulness (and fondness for flowers) is a wonderful jolt, and Marshall's work resembles nothing so much as a heavy metal solo played with paint and prehistoric subject matter. Douglas Henderson and John Sibbick, of course, are two of the current giants of paleoart, and their galleries reflect that standing excellently.

Elasmosaurs  and Pteranodon  ©  Douglas Henderson

There are a few things in Dinosaur Art that don't work quite as well, though. I'm a huge fan of digital work when it's well integrated or stylistically experimental, but some of the examples used aren't as successful as they could be. For some reason, even the best photo-manipulations just don't seem to be well served by print. Julius Csotonyi comes the closest to escaping this trap, using as he does digitally manipulated backgrounds and animals alike to build his murals. A few, unfortunately, do tumble headlong into the uncanny valley, but on the whole his style is hyper-detailed enough that he pulls it off more often then not.

Luis Rey, unfortunately, doesn't pull it off a single time. His awesomely bombastic style meshes badly with digital effects, and produces a sloppy looking mixture that does more harm then good to the actual pencils. Perhaps most seriously of all, it makes his contributions look generic and cheap in comparison to the other artwork in the book. Robert Nicholls, likewise, has a lot of the good will from his gorgeous underwater paintings undone with a single digital collage. Frankly, I'm a little puzzled that some of this was considered worthy of putting up next to, say, Douglas Henderson.

Sanajeh and juvenile dinosaur © Julius Csotonyi
Another thing that bothers me about Dinosaur Art is a little more abstract. Some of the art selections seem to blend together after a while, and I wonder whether a greater stylistic variance would have helped alleviate the problem. The book pays a lot of attention to the same well loved, hyper-natural school of paleoart, and the inclusion of people like William Stout would go wonders toward giving the book a more varied feel.

The inclusion of Gregory Paul is to the book's credit, though. I differ from David here, of course; as Marc pointed out, he is an important progenitor of a lot of the current trends in paleoart, for good or ill, and having his gallery as an example of that baseline style is useful and informative. Both John Conway and Todd Marshall in particular seem to be reacting to his legacy in their own art, commenting on it and spinning it in fun ways. That kind of artistic communication gives the book a spark other compilations don't have, and it's worth wading through Paul's tetchy taxonomy to get it.

Finally, I feel more time should have been spent either elucidating the science behind some of the artistic choices, or going further into the process behind the artwork itself. Dinosaur Art tries to split the difference, and as a result spends little time discussing either process or science. The interviews are interesting, but not always terribly informative, and they tend to cover fairly similar ground. I wish the book had focused a little bit more on exploring one facet well, instead of trying to be all things to all readers.

© Raúl Martín
On the whole, though, I think Dinosaur Art is a success. My issues with it aside, it's a book filled with overwhelmingly gorgeous art of awesome extinct creatures, well made, well curated, and absolutely worth your time and money.

You can read Marc and David's takes here. Next up, Niroot!


  1. What a worderful pictures.... amazing!!!


  2. Oh man, do you have a larger version of that Henderson image? Gorgeous!! It's like a prehistoric Howard Pyle.

    1. Sure! I'll size it up a bit. Honestly, the book is worth buying for just the Henderson alone.

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